To paraphrase an old college lecturer: “Never use voice-overs. They just show you’re a lazy writer.”
I generally break down voice-overs into three basic categories: expository voice-over, narration and ‘personal’ narration. The last one is a term I coined myself (I know, clever me), and I’ll explain what it means in just a moment, but for now let’s look at the standard narrative voice-over. Just like any other dramatic device, the use of the voice-over is fairly commonplace in Hollywood, and has been pretty much since the advent of sound cinema. Sometimes it’s just used for exposition at the beginning of the film to explain the events that have led to the introduction of our story (Oblivion, Terminator 2); other times, the entire film is narrated, usually by one of the main characters (The Shawshank Redemption, Goodfellas, Adaptation). But is it actually a valid storytelling device, or simply a cheap way for the writer to get out of character-driven exposition?
Some will argue it’s the latter. In an introductory screenwriting class I was taught to avoid using voice-overs at all costs, as if they were somehow the cinematic equivalent of the plague. The lecturer was hands-down the most anti-voice-over person I’ve ever met, citing her reasons as them being patronizing and lazy, like the writer is spoon-feeding us information when they should be taking the time to construct a scene to explains things, as is their job. I didn’t heed the advice then I still don’t to this day; if I ever feel the need to use a voice-over I’ll have no hesitation, but I do see the reasoning in the argument.
Oft-times there’s a definite sense of laziness if an opening voice-over exceeds about a couple of minutes. Just this year Oblivion opened in such a way; five minutes of Tom Cruise giving us the lowdown on everything that’s happened up until this point in the story. It was too long, too explanatory, and even though Oblvion’s plot is pretty complex and perhaps deserves a bit of extra help, by the mid-way point of that opening scene I was just sitting there thinking, can we please just get on with it? If the writer feels the audience needs a bit of help that’s fine, but they don’t need training wheels. The crucial thing about good writing is making the audience (or reader) do some of the work.
On the other hand, an opening voice-over, when short, necessary and done well, is practically unnoticeable. Let’s look at the other previously-mentioned example, Terminator 2. It opens with Sarah Connor chronicling the events of the first film in a short voice-over while we see a future war between humans and machines. It acts as sort of “previously on” to give the audience a quick reminder of what they need to know, but doesn’t keep lacing the information on. It reaches a point where it knows the audience knows enough, and stops. Oblivion just wasn’t aware of how much it was telling us.
Then there’s narration, which is a totally different matter. It’s important to make a distinction between the two, because while a voice-over is the writer speaking to the audience, narration is the character speaking to the audience. There is, believe it or not, a difference. Let’s take a look at Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Throughout the film, Ray Liotta’s Henry narrates his life from his childhood in backstreet New York right through to his status as a national infamous gangster. He’s constantly giving us an insight into his thought process, and when we meet new characters, Henry’s right there to tell us all about them; who they are, what they do, what he thought of them. Could the film have been made without the running narration? Of course it could have, but it probably would have lost something; it’s style and distinction. The reason it isn’t problematic in this case is because it’s not the writers Scorsese or Nicholas Pileggi speaking to us – it’s Henry himself. It is after all a story about him, and he’s telling his own story to the proverbial audience – Scorsese’s simply filming it. It’s like reading a book with a first person perspective. In Dracula, it’s Johnathan Harker, not Bram Stoker, who’s speaking to us (or at least is journal).
Finally there’s private narration, the sort of sub-category of narration. What this refers to is a character who is narrating the film without knowing it, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. The film runs through Bickle’s head and thoughts, where the whole time he thinks he’s just talking to himself but doesn’t realize he’s actually speaking to the audience. This type of narration isn’t always essential to the plot and can get in the way as it’s not actually providing information relating directly to the story (most of the time), but it’s more a form of character exposition, a way of getting to know him a little more. Christopher Nolan’s Memento uses the same device to marvelous effect. Of course, if it’s done too self-indulgently it can result in a horribly narcissistic mess.
So on the evidence of the films in hand, and the many others that haven’t been discussed, I think it’s safe to say that voice-overs aren’t generally a problem. They can be used incorrectly, and while there’s certainly valid reasoning behind the arguments against them, I think the vast majority of the time people hardly even notice their use. Just like any other dramatic or cinematic device, voice-overs sometimes work and sometimes don’t, but I hope we never live in a world where a new generation of writers learn to eradicate something that’s established itself as a perfectly functional part of cinema. If you’re writing a screenplay and your main character has something important to tell us, I say go for it.